The Sciences

Science, Conservatives, and Cultural Continuity

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 24, 2011 1:32 PM


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In response to my post yesterday, a reader and Facebook friend pointed me to at least one clear example of a conservative intellectual arguing that a desire to preserve "cultural continuity" does predispose those on his side of the spectrum negatively towards some aspects of science. Here's Yuval Levin, author of the book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy:

Q: Your new book is all about science and ideology. How would you describe the differences in how the left and the right look at science? Levin: The book is about what we can learn about our politics from the science debate. Science is a useful clarifying lense to look at our politics because it brings to the surface things that are often implicit and under the surface. And some of them really point to deep differences between the right and the left, especially in terms of how we look at the future.

The right tends to think of the future in terms of generations and maintaining continuity, and the left tends to think of the future in terms of innovations.

Q: Jerry Coyne said in our interview that the right is more hostile than the left to scientific thinking because the right is more religious. Would you consider that an oversimplification? Levin: I think so, but it’s not simply wrong. There’s another level beneath it. I don’t think it’s being religious that explains why the right thinks a certain way about science. I think it’s an attitude the right has toward cultural continuity. That makes a big difference. It’s also why the right tends to be more open toward religion. On those issues where the right has a problem with science, it usually arises when science poses some kind of threat to what conservatives see as the imperative of cultural continuity, whether it’s at the juncture of generations or around society’s ability to present a picture of its own past, an argument about morals and values. So it’s easy to see why a hard-line scientific worldview that doesn’t allow other kinds of questions to be asked and answered would strike the right as a problem. I don’t think religion is necessarily the reason for this.

So this is pretty interesting. We have at least one conservative intellectual going along with the view that it is the dynamism of science, its constant generation of new innovation and possibilities, that sits better with the left than the right--because the left is out there reveling in the shock of the new, while the right (these are generalizations, of course) looks aghast at what will happen to old systems and ways of doing things. Moreover, we have a close connection being drawn between the desire to preserve "cultural continuity" and the power of religiosity on the right. But of course, this does not work very well to explain all those secular, technophile libertarians who think we ought to be living on Mars by now. [Incidentally, Levin also says something pretty unbelievable in this interview: With regard to the Bush administration and climate science, he remarks, "I never saw anything that struck me as a deliberate effort to keep information from the public." Did he read the newspapers?]

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